Too Beautiful for You

Actors acting badly: Alan Cumming and Jennifer Jason Leigh in The Anniversary Party

Self-indulgent is the word that springs to mind regarding The Anniversary Party, the film written, directed by, and starring Jennifer Jason Leigh and Alan Cumming--and I'm curious why that's so. I mean, other actors have actorly showcases created for or by themselves (Cast Away, Saving Private Ryan, Mission: Impossible 2, etc.). And multiple crying scenes for both leads in a movie aren't that uncommon. (Wasn't there a ton of tears in The Green Mile?) Overlong, talky, relationship-oriented projects do not necessarily spell zzzzz (I didn't hate Short Cuts). And there are plenty of other directors who like to work with their actor friends (Cast Away, Saving Private Ryan, etc.). Okay, okay: Loads of movies are self-indulgent. But why does this movie--made for the fun of it, by all accounts--feel like it especially coddles, even pampers, its makers?

The content may be part of the problem. The Anniversary Party observes a skidding Hollywood actress (Leigh, the less-busy-than-she-used-to-be Hollywood actress) and an up-and-coming British novelist (Cumming, the up-and-coming British actor) celebrating their six-year-old marriage with a host of glittering movie-business friends (played by such friends of Leigh and Cumming as Kevin Kline, Parker Posey, Jennifer Beals, Gwyneth Paltrow, John C. Reilly, and Jane Adams). This particular anniversary party is significant because novelist Joe Therrian has only recently returned after a yearlong separation.

The Therrians are now trying to make a baby, and Joe is soon to direct a movie of his latest novel. Attending the party are ex-lovers, best friends, co-workers, the beautiful ingénue who will star in Joe's movie, and the enemy neighbor couple that Joe and Sally are trying to ass-kiss out of a lawsuit. The night cleverly unfolds in a Happiness-meets-The Player-meets-Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?-meets-The Rocky Horror Picture Show sort of fashion. Which is to say that the movie wants to mock and shock and tease and, finally, perhaps, appeal to the sympathies.

The audience's "way in" to the actors' glamorous lives, according to the press kit, is through the "normal" neighbors, Ryan and Monica Rose (Denis O'Hare and Mina Badie). An interior designer and a struggling novelist, the Roses are both awed and angered by the Therrians' celebrity privilege. (The bone of contention between the two couples is the Therrians' barking dog. A metaphor for their loudly publicized lives?) In the company of all these fabulous performers, the Roses act awkward and clumsy and fawning. They Do Not Fit In, even as they discover over the course of the evening that, hey, highly paid actors and directors are just people, too.

You see, the Therrians and their friends are troubled. Joe and Sally snipe all night, finally erupting into a full-blown fight that proves they have little in common but selfishness. Jane Adams, the sad lady from Happiness, plays an actress who has just birthed a son, and who's freaked about working again (the speedy-weight-loss pills aren't helping). Her director husband Mac (John C. Reilly) is depressed and worried about the film-destroying performance Sally is giving in his current project. Sally's best friend Panes (Michael Panes) has just been dumped. Everybody is trying to score something off somebody else (there's a nasty game of charades at the center of the movie). But they're all very witty and personable about it. Save for the Roses.

It's a weird, condescending message: Celebrities are smarter and funnier than you, but they're just as unhappy. Oh, and they're richer, too (but unhappy!). Designer fashion, architectural splendor, loyal help, home yoga instruction, and techno doodads: The Therrians can take it all for granted. And yet, underneath those trite superficialities, they're as confused as I am about the human basics: love, betrayal, birth, death. It's so profound, so moving! Okay, that's a lie. I cannot feel sorry for people who want me to feel sorry for them. Especially when they own a Richard Neutra house around Laurel Canyon.

Or if they can rent one, pull in their actor friends and a small crew of, oh, 50 people or so, and spend 19 days bringing to life a little script they wrote (about) themselves. Yes, I'm blurring the lines between the creators and their characters, and that's unfair. But the creators have invited that entanglement by writing with their own and their friends' styles and voices in mind--attempting to, as Cumming says, "draw from reality." Leigh at first nearly does a parody of her style: slurring, sleepy, humid. Cumming plays a charming and feckless, sexually ambiguous sophisticate. Gwyneth Paltrow is an intelligent, hip starlet, albeit one with more of an All About Eve backstabber thing going on than we usually read about in People. Kevin Kline plays a comedic actor with a love of Shakespeare married to Phoebe Cates's semi-retired actress; they bring their two precocious offspring, who are, of course, acted by Greta Kline and Owen Kline.

The Anniversary Party has its pleasures. Cates exudes such an earthy, warm presence that I wish she were less semi-retired. Shot by John Bailey (The Big Chill) on digital video, the movie looks beautifully clear and immediate. The script occasionally (though not consistently) is smart and funny, and the acting is interesting, if overwrought. (Then again, the characters are on Ecstasy for half the film.) Indeed, if The Anniversary Party hiked just a couple of steps further into melodrama, it might have reached camp, and thus be assured of a cult following along the lines of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?. We do love our celebrities, especially when they're acting badly.

Yet there's something about the movie that's too patronizing for that. I was moved by a scene of Kline mock-ballet-dancing with his daughter: She giggles nonstop, and he seems so playfully affectionate. It seems real. But it only seems real. I feel like an illusion of these celebrities' real lives is being trotted out to seduce the celebrity-obsessed public. That's the illusion of star-driven cinema in general. But here the celebrities are almost playing themselves, teasing the audience with little bits of truth. It's as though, with the Roses, we are invited--once--into their homes, in order to avoid an escalation of rebellious hostilities. In the morning, after the party (or film) is over, a loyal retainer comes to take out the trash and reestablish order.

And we return, pacified, to the other side of the fence, dreaming of the privilege we can look at but never touch.

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